During the Middle Ages maps of the world often placed Jerusalem at the center. This was based on the vulgate, the Latin, translation of Ezekiel 5:5 which Jerome understood to mean Jerusalem as terrae umbilicus, the "navel of the earth." While Jerusalem is no longer placed at the center of world maps it still clearly remains at the center of much of the world's attention.
The recent incident of Collins Bartholomew, a subsidiary of publishing giant HarperCollins, leaving Israel off its maps intended for English-speaking schools in the Gulf states is a case in point. Once word got out through an article published in The Tablet, an international Catholic news weekly, that British-based Collins Bartholomew was omitting Israel from those maps, a worldwide firestorm quickly ignited. In less than 24 hours, HarperCollins issued the following statement: "HarperCollins regrets the omission of the name Israel from their Collins Middle East Atlas. This product has now been removed from sale in all territories and all remaining stock will be pulped. HarperCollins sincerely apologizes for this omission and for any offense caused."
The offending maps, located in The Collins Primary Geography Atlas for the Middle East, were published in June of last year. The reason given by Collins Bartholomew as to why they printed the maps without Israel was because of "local preferences." That outrageous explanation was swatted down with the speed of a fly meeting a fly swatter. Can one imagine HarperCollins omitting England from Northern Ireland textbooks during The Troubles in the name of local preferences!
However In fairness to Collins Bartholomew cultural sensitivity is an important value. It is actually taught in the Talmud. What Collins Bartholomew, and by extension HarperCollins, failed to understand is that being culturally sensitive is about being sensitive to a particular culture; it does not mean promoting aspects of a different culture that are intolerant and hateful.
In the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86B) we are told when Moses was on Mount Sinai he refrained from eating to show deference to the custom of the ministering angels who don't eat, and when the ministering angels visited Abraham they ate to be culturally sensitive to Abraham who had prepared a lavish feast for them. From this Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai said. "A person should not deviate from local custom." This highly tolerant and culturally sensitive message is discussed in other places in the Talmud and Halacha, Jewish law, with much latitude. However in Pesachim 50B we learn that there can be limits to this concept; that to follow certain local customs "will never see a sign of blessing." The decision of Collins Bartholomew and HarperCollins to erase Israel from their maps for the Gulf States did not see a sign of blessing.
We all applaud the quick resolution and outcome of this incident, but we should not be so high on our camel that we forget to turn the mirror inward as well. How many maps produced by ministries of the Israeli government or Zionist organizations omit the Green Line, essentially wiping out the Palestinian territories. To those who say Israel captured the West Bank and therefore the Green Line no longer applies, Jordan said the same thing after it captured the West Bank during the Israeli War of Independence and annexed it in 1950. Only England and Pakistan recognized that occupation by Jordan and up until the Six Day War accurate maps did not show the West Bank as part of Jordan, but rather under Jordanian occupation.
I wrote in this blog last week, "before Palestinians and Israelis can successfully negotiate with one and the other they both must come to terms with the pain and suffering they have inflicted on the other." A map may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Yet a map, among many things, is a storyteller. Too often both sides try to write the other out of the story. Such actions don't make the other disappear, rather it has the opposite effect. The resolve of the other is strengthened and confirms for them that the other one is not to be trusted. There will be no sign of blessing sighted as long as both sides try to diminish and erase the other in this conflict.
This post first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on January 6, 2015.